Commentary

FL’s Northern Turnpike Extension threatens to pave over historic Black community

Founded by freed slaves, Royal faces obliteration by road-builders

May 19, 2022 7:00 am

A child stands in a tobacco field in the Royal community during the 1950s. The state wants to plow a highway through the historic Black community. Source: Beverly Steele

If you plan to visit the historic Central Florida community of Royal, I have two pieces of advice for you:

1) Don’t go there feeling hungry. There are no fast-food joints or other restaurants where you can order a Royal version of the Royale with Cheese.

2) You better hurry. Powerful people are plotting its destruction as we speak. Their reasoning is that this is the price of progress, can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs, and all those other clichés.

I drove through Royal on Sunday afternoon, just to take a look at it before the shady politicians and greedy developers pushing the Northern Turnpike Extension obliterate it.

One of my passengers described the area as “rustic,” which seemed like just the right word for this quiet slice of Sumter County. We saw cows. We saw farms. We saw a mix of mobile homes and single-story houses, none of them close to each other.

The author poses near the Royal community’s historical marker. Credit: Craig Pittman

We stopped at the community center to read the town’s historical marker. Royal’s origin story is a standing rebuke to anyone who thinks Florida history started in 1971 when Walt Disney World opened.

Royal dates to the waning days of the Civil War. I got the whole story by spending about an hour talking to Beverly Steele, 66, who oversees the community center and is the keeper of Royal’s history.

My hour talking with her seems about 59 minutes more than the Florida Department of Transportation spent researching what will be lost if they ram this unwanted road through Royal.

“This will destroy our community,” she told me.” It’s going to pave over two of our churches and my community center is in its path and it’s going through most of our populated area.”

It also takes aim at their cemetery, which Steele told me a DOT consultant said had no historical significance.

That’s only true if you don’t count the former enslaved people buried there.

40 acres and a mule

Royal’s original founders were recently freed slaves who had been living and working on a plantation bordering the nearby Withlacoochee River, Steele told me.

How could ex-enslaved people buy land? They didn’t. They were handed ownership by order of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, the man who gave Atlanta an extreme makeover.

Schoolchildren at a public charter school in South Florida attend a bill signing, HB 7, with Gov. Ron DeSantis. CRT references Critical Race Theory. April 22, 2022.

Brace yourself, Buttercup. I am about to lay on you some of that “critical race theory” that Gov. Ron “Welcome to the Not-So-Free State of Florida” DeSantis hates with such a passion.

In January 1865, Sherman issued an order giving all freed slaves under his jurisdiction — which covered some 400,000 acres across the South — the gift of 40 acres (and, later, a mule). That would get them started on the road to freedom.

America had stolen their liberty as well as their ability to choose where they lived and to get paid for their labors, their opportunities for education, and their right to be safe in their own bodies. The law said they belonged to their “masters,” as if they were cows or chickens. Surely America owed them something to make up for that wholesale theft.

Royal quickly became known as a location where African-Americans could own property and engage in various business activities.

– Beverly Steele

But after Abe Lincoln’s assassination, his successor as president, Andrew Johnson, overruled Sherman (here’s the CRT part). He ordered the return of the land to its white owners, even though they had rebelled against the U.S.

By then, though, Royal had gotten its start and its residents had no intention of giving anything back.

“Royal quickly became known as a location where African-Americans could own property and engage in various business activities,” Steele told me via email. “Faced with increasing restrictions elsewhere, Royal became very attractive in the years following Reconstruction.”

As a Black community, Royal has faced some government decision-making that, if it was not racially motivated, sure gave that appearance. Its school remained segregated for about 20 years after the Brown v. Board decision. Meanwhile, the community was bisected by the construction of Interstate 75 in the ’50s, although later an overpass reconnected the halves.

(I contacted several Florida historians, and they said they’d never heard the Royal story before. One of them, by the way, wrote a book about antebellum Florida called “A Rogue’s Paradise,” so it seems to me that not much has changed in the past 161 years.)

Most of the estimated 1,200 residents who live in Royal today are descendants of those freed slaves, Steele told me. They still live on their inherited portions of the 40 acre parcels their ancestors first settled.

“It’s a beautiful thing for me to walk on the same land they walked on,” she said. “They walked it in work boots, and because of them I walk it in three-inch stiletto heels with a tiger print.”

Now here comes the DOT to stomp its way through the community like Godzilla.

This destruction is bad for Royal, of course. But the residents can take some comfort in the fact that the new highway will make some of Royal’s neighbors rich.

One of them, by the way, has given gobs of cash to the governor and his political party.

‘Stay out of Royal’

State officials have been trying to build a northward extension of the Florida Turnpike since the spectacularly colorful Claude Kirk was governor in the 1960s. (Kirk once rode a horse to a news conference, brought a woman he called “Madame X” to his inauguration, and planted the state flag on the ocean floor, among other eccentricities.)

Charles Lee of Audubon Florida, whose career as an environmental activist started around the time Juan Ponce de Leon was sipping from our fountains, told me the DOT has tried to build this misbegotten project at least three times.

Each time, the turnpike extension plan has delighted developers who foresaw making big bucks and angered local residents who fought to keep their rural area rural. Each time, that vocal local opposition has defeated the developer-driven road, Lee told me.

Lee sent me some old newspaper clippings, which made for entertaining reading. I particularly liked the one in which a DOT official told the Miami Herald in 1999, “The traffic numbers are low enough that it doesn’t meet any economic feasibility test.”

I think we need new roads in Florida to get around.

– Ron DeSantis

This time, it wasn’t the DOT that dug up this dead horse to beat it some more. It was the Legislature.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signs massive toll roads expansion. Source: Florida Senate

In 2019, our fine lawmakers passed a bill calling for three massively expensive toll roads that would serve no purpose except as a payback for a large campaign contribution to the Senate president from the Florida Transportation Builders Association.

Gov. DeSantis was fine with this waste of time and money. He signed the bill and announced, with his usual keen political insight, “I think we need new roads in Florida to get around.”

Then, when costs shot up because of the pandemic, the Legislature passed a new bill last year repealing their edict for two of the roads but leaving in place the Northern Turnpike Extension. (The governor, with his usual keen political insight., signed this bill without comment.)

The folks in Royal first learned in December that their land was being considered for the turnpike extension route, Steele said. They started getting letters from lawyers specializing in eminent domain. Those are the cases in which the state seizes your land against your will and pays you whatever it can convince a court is fair.

This sort of rude awakening is not the best way for a government agency to charm property owners into feeling cooperative.

Shortly thereafter, DOT officials invited them to a public meeting to talk about it. They invited DOT officials to come to them instead. The message the residents delivered, according to Steele, was simple: “Stay out of Royal.”

The DOT “is committed to refining the current alternative corridors to avoid and minimize impacts to communities and environmentally sensitive features to the extent possible as the project progresses,” a turnpike spokeswoman named Angela Starke told me.

“As such, FDOT will refine the corridors to minimize the impacts to the community of Royal.” (I would note that “refine” is not the same as “avoid.”)

Meanwhile, though, folks like developer Carlos Beruff have already made plans to cash in.

Trucks full of money

Carlos Beruff
Carlos Beruff. Source: Screengrab

Beruff, a Manatee County developer and onetime U.S. Senate candidate, has a long record as both a GOP campaign contributor and a guy whose concern for the environment ranks well below his concern for making a fortune.

Right now, for instance, he’s under investigation for illegally trimming mangroves. Back in 2016, he told me he wanted to cut back those mangroves “for the obvious reason — the view!”

Beruff is a generous guy, though. For instance, Sumter County Commissioner Roberta Ulrich — appointed to the commission earlier this year by DeSantis — “has raised the bulk of her campaign cash from a big-name GOP donor living outside the county,” the Villages News reported this month. That donor: Beruff.

I am sure his generosity had nothing to do with the speed with which one of his companies, SR 44 LLC, was able to win county approval for a change in its zoning. The change was necessary so Beruff could turn a 100-acre pasture near Royal into a site for a new freight distribution center for truckers.

Now a Citrus County couple, Jim and Lynda Fenton of Floral City, who run a citrus, strawberry, and cattle operation, are applying for a similar zoning change, with similar intent. But their property, at 600 acres, is much larger, and it’s much closer to Royal.

Sumter County’s own zoning report spells out what’s going on: “The high demand for industrial land near the I-75/SR 44 interchange is in response to state plans to extend the Florida Turnpike through the area.”

It’s as if they’re seeing all those trucks booming by on I-75 and picturing them full of money and pulling into their property instead.

I tried to contact Beruff and the Fentons about this, but they didn’t return my calls. I suppose they felt awkward discussing how much profit they would make — and how they would lose out if the Northern Turnpike Extension were canceled again.

So now Royal residents are battling both the DOT’s road plan and also the speculators who hope to start servicing 18-wheelers driving on the road that doesn’t exist yet.

I haven’t even mentioned the effects on the aquifer yet.

DeSantis’s chance to disprove “critical race theory”

Sumter County’s biggest and best-known community is the mostly white retirement mecca known as The Villages.

The Villages has gained national attention for its cases of voter fraud, its golf cart-related crimes, and its occasional instances of sex in public.

It’s also one of Florida’s major water guzzlers. Officials in The Villages suck so much water out of the aquifer to keep the golf courses green that sinkholes are constantly popping open.

Royal doesn’t have that problem. But its residents do rely on well water, Steele told me. That flow from underground has been a major feature of the community ever since its founding.

In fact, when she was a young girl, everyone frequently congregated at a naturally formed water body they called “The Sinkhole.”

“The men would go down and start fires and the women would start fishing, and by the time we kids got there, we could smell the fish frying,” she said.

Now imagine the pollution running off a highway or a truck stop built on top of that, she said. The people who aren’t forced off their land by the turnpike extension would likely see their wells contaminated by the pollution.

“People are not going to be able to live here in peace,” she said.

It’s an ugly scenario — one of many revolving around the Northern Turnpike Extension, which has once again ticked off a bunch of people in its pathway.

But the DOT’s threat to dethrone Royal presents Gov. DeSantis with a rare opportunity to use his keen political insight.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signing HB 7 bill into law April 22, 2022. Credit: Florida Channel.

By signing both the 2019 bill and the 2021 repeal, DeSantis has officially endorsed this Northern Turnpike Extension not once but twice. It’s his highway. In fact, I plan to start calling it the Ron DeSantis Road to Ruin — the “Ron Road” for short.

If the Ron Road does indeed steamroll through Royal, that will show that the “critical race theory” he despises so much is no theory at all. It’s as real as his desire to be the Official Dreamy Hunk Poster Boy of Fox & Friends.

Lee pointed out to me that there is a clear alternative to the DOT’s proposed pathway: widening I-75. That’s what a local advisory committee wanted in the first place.

“No one would dispute the need to expand I-75, and it could be done with next-to-zero environmental impacts,” Lee said.

By ordering the DOT to pursue I-75 widening instead of his “Ron Road,” DeSantis could end the threat to this historic Black community and placate all those other turnpike opponents ready to break out their pitchforks and torches.

Then he could claim that that Royal’s continued survival is evidence that critical race theory is just liberal poppycock.

Of course, he’d have to explain the decision to all those disappointed developers. I’m sure they’ll understand if he explains it right. He could tell them that line about making an omelet.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in 2021, is The State You're In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.

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